This is the newest edition of my column appearing in the Chronicle of Philanthropy this week. This column was an outgrowth of conversations here on Tactical Philanthropy and I’m appreciative to the readers who left comments on those original posts and informed my thinking on this concept. You can find an archive of my past columns here.
Philanthropy’s Information Revolution
April 23, 2009|Link to Chronicle of Philanthropy article
By Sean Stannard-Stockton
Two years ago, Carla Dearing, then chief executive of Community Foundations of America, wrote an opinion essay in Worth magazine titled, “The Schwabification of Philanthropy.”
She argued that philanthropy was going through a transformation as the Internet not only reduced the cost of making philanthropic gifts to both donors and nonprofit organizations but also made it easier for donors to do their own research on potential beneficiaries rather than seek help from community foundations, the United Way, and other long-established institutions.
Just as Charles Schwab & Company had disrupted the business of investment management in the 1970s by lowering transaction costs and unbundling financial advice from transactions, so, too, would that change happen in philanthropy, Ms. Dearing predicted
That trend has proved to have staying power, and the Schwabification of philanthropy became a reality. Online donations, commercial donor-advised funds, and Web sites like Kiva.org and DonorsChoose are all direct results.
Now a new trend has taken hold: the Googlization of philanthropy.
If Schwabification focused on automating and reducing the costs of transactions, Googlization focuses on enabling collaboration and participation by unbundling the process of creating information from its distribution. Since philanthropy is improved exponentially as more information is shared about which social-benefit efforts work — and which ones fail — this is a big moment for philanthropy.
Philanthropy is unlike industries in which the Internet has destroyed business models that relied on the information producer’s maintaining control of distribution. The very technology that is killing newspapers and record companies will revolutionize philanthropy for the better.
According to Google, the company’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. While it does not produce much information itself, Google is the first place many people turn when they want to find information.
Without needing the cooperation of people who produce articles and other content, Google has organized valuable information so well that seekers of information turn to Google rather than go directly to content producers. What this means for philanthropy is that as philanthropic knowledge is captured and put online, third-party groups can organize this information and make it accessible and useful.
Today both PubHub, a project of the Foundation Center, and IssueLab aggregate publicly available research about organizations that serve the social good. PubHub focuses on foundation-financed research, while IssueLab focuses on research conducted by other types of nonprofit groups
Recently, Tony Wang, an employee at Blueprint Research & Design, a philanthropy consulting firm, spent a few hours of his spare time playing with Google’s Custom Search service and created a tool called PhilanthropySearch.org. It scans the Web sites of the 100 largest foundations, philanthropy consulting firms, university research centers, and other sites about philanthropy. If a foundation or other philanthropically oriented organization posts information on its Web site, the search tool will index it.
What is interesting about PhilanthropySearch.org is, first, how little time and money it took to create, and second, that it was created by an information seeker rather than an organization. The power of using online information tools in philanthropy is that they can organize the knowledge accumulated by nonprofit organizations and make it universally accessible.
But just as Schwabification was not an argument for one entity to dominate philanthropic transactions, the Googlization of philanthropy does not suggest that Google should come to dominate philanthropic knowledge aggregation.
The newly redesigned GuideStar Web site and the efforts of Charity Navigator to incorporate data about charities’ results in its evaluations expand on efforts to aggregate philanthropic information. But for those efforts to be successful, valuable information must be available in a digitized form.
Both groups are trying to find ways to encourage nonprofit groups to submit information that is not readily accessible. But all charities, foundations, and other organizations that serve the social good need to recognize the importance of knowledge sharing and to post as much information as possible, so that third parties can find ways to make it accessible and useful.
One group already capitalizing on the explosion of digitized philanthropic information is SocialActions.com. Its Web site aggregates more than 50 sources of online social activity, including Change.org, GlobalGiving, Razoo, and VolunteerMatch. Over time, people interested in giving money, volunteering, or taking some sort of action online may find SocialActions.com their first destination.
The Schwabification of philanthropy was about lowering the cost of administering philanthropy and thereby giving charitable financial tools to more individuals.
The Googlization of philanthropy is about organizing knowledge to allow for smarter giving by more people. Most important, the Googlization of philanthropy means that organizing the information will not be done by the information creators, but by third parties and — excitingly — the people who want to consume that information.
Sean Stannard-Stockton, a regular columnist for The Chronicle of Philanthropy, is a principal and director of tactical philanthropy at Ensemble Capital Management and author of the blog Tactical Philanthropy.
I’m the Manager of New Media at The Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard and we also had rolled out a Google Custom Search Engine for the nonprofit sector last year, and include foundations, a project very similar to PhilanthropySearch.org. We are continuing to grow this and add features, including collaboration across user categories.
If there are other people out there also developing nonprofit-related search engines, I would love to get in contact with them so that we don’t duplicate efforts and could find a way to coordinate our efforts for greater impact. One risk of low cost tools like this is that a bunch of people start using them, but end up all creating the same tool.(Not saying that is happening in this case. Hats off to Tony.)
Michael_Byrne at harvard dot edu
Great column. Big miss on not including Network for Good (www.networkforgood.org), which has done more to bring down the cost of donating online and turning non-profits onto the benefits of using the medium than any other organization. From their Six Degrees project with Kevin Bacon to their work with the Case Foundation on the America’s Giving Challenge, Network for Good has been at the forefront of nearly every practical expansion of online philanthropy. Their approach to educating nonprofits about the benefits and pitfalls of using the Internet as a donor cultivation and fund raising tool have helped thousands of organizations make the leap and succeed.
Now as for your differentiation of “Swabification” and “Googlization,” you couldn’t be more right on. The problem though is that each attempt, as I’ve observed them, to provide information about the sector has either been too detailed/obtuse (990s for instance), too limited in the number of nonprofits addressed and therefore of limited use or, in the case of “user generated” content, a mishmash of homilies about the great work being done by Organization X w/o any hard hitting criticism of areas where the nonprofit falls down. IMO, what is needed is for funders — Foundations, individuals, etc — to come together and fund an independent organization dedicated to sharing what foundations learn through their own funding-decision research, and that includes way for nonprofits themselves to promote their own work and critique the work of others. It should also include (a la Charity Navigator) simple a red light-green light method by which “casual” donors can quickly make decisions and learn from “professional” funders (Lucy Berholz’s Endorsement Philanthropy). If a consumer products reviewer (like, say, Consumer Reports) provided the same level of research, the same lack of criticism, the same hard to understand data, that the nonprofit sector accepts as sufficient, they’d be long gone.
Googilization, great but how about some level of being truly straightforward and ending the campfire sing-along approach that says every nonprofit is good simply because they intend to do good and instead hearing from people and funders when a nonprofit isn’t measuring up and doesn’t deserve the giving public’s dollars.
Great comment, RDAM. Network for Good was mentioned in the original draft but edited out due to space constraints. note that Network for Good is part of Schwabification rather than Googlization and I didn’t spend as much time rehashing Carla’s point.
Your point on information sharing among funders is super important. I wrote about this in my last Chronicle column.
Funders (and nonprofits) frequently balk at the time and expense of trying to share their knowledge. The point of my column is that they won’t need to carry that cost, the Googlization process will do it for them.
One difficulty I foresee in the Googlization of philanthropy is the lack of a dominant player in the aggregation game. You note that both Guidestar and Charity Navigator are trying to provide richer information about nonprofits by encouraging “nonprofit groups to submit information that is not readily accessible.” I agree that nonprofits need to make this information available as widely as possible, but the lack of a dominant repository makes it difficult for organizations to know what sites will best serve their needs, and submitting information to a range of sites is a drain on resources.
I think the Googlization of philanthropy will come, but until there is a dominant player in the field, its emergence will be slow. If you create a website for any purpose, you can anticipate that it will eventually be indexed by Google. If you want your site to appear near the top of a results page when users search Google for particular terms, there are many search engine optimization techniques available to help make this happen. The key here is that Google is for all intents and purposes the only search engine worth caring about. Nonprofits can use SEO techniques to improve their Google PageRank scores, but until there is a dominant aggregation engine serving philanthropists and foundations, I think sites such as Guidestar and Charity Navigator will continue to be incomplete resources.
Google themselves might end up being that core service. See these posts. But one of the aspects of Google is that it indexes across sites and the web in general is moving towards a unified way to understand information. My hope is that this trend means that philanthropy won’t have to build their own information clearing house, but that philanthropy’s information will be aggregated by third party web applications.
I thought your piece wonderfully engaging. It struck me that the capacity to googlize philanthropy doesn’t improve philanthropy by itself.
There are at least two sets of interwoven criteria at work–the criteria by which information is deemed important and, thus, selected or organized, and the criteria by which the re-organized information is applied in making giving decisions. Obviously, each informs the other and both merit scrutiny.
I think of my econometrician friends who build elaborate models on a series of assumptions, each of which they know to be contestable. Yet, when the model produces results, instead of seeing those results be more speculative or contestable than each of the contestable assumptions, they are seen to have special credibility because they came from the sophisticated model.
Transparency and self-consciousness are, of course, part of the answer.
In using the information I need to know by what criteria it was selected and I need to be explicit with myself and others as to what criteria I’m using in applying it.
That may suggest a problem of infinite regression. I will then want to know by what criteria the selection criteria were selected and, knowing that, by what criteria the second level criteria were selected, etc. (I’m largely kidding here. I think that’s a real a logical problem but beyond the first or second level the only practical solution is to test the results against our intuitions and if they don’t mesh then go back scrutinizing the criteria and the results against one another).
Pat, thanks for your comment. I would say that the Googlization process is one that makes more information available. Your question pertains more to what should be done with the information. Might some people try to harness the information to build computer driven nonprofit rating systems? Sure. But I do not think that that leap is the preordained outcome of Googlization. More availability of data could also be used to help people make better qualitative decisions.
I do think that human decision making is critical in philanthropy and all walks of life. Using the internet to gather information does not mean (and should not mean) that we will take the next step and allow computers to make decisions as well.
It seems to me, Sean, that my earlier point applies to the front end, the googlization, as well as to the back end, how the information is used. In establishing criteria for assembling information there are decisions being made about what is important. If I understand google’s process correctly (and if I do it is a tribute to the explanations of patient friends) they have made decisions in their logarhithms as to which words in a search to look for first, or how important word order is, or how to weigh the frequency of similar words in a given website in assessing a match. Those who seek to googlize philanthropy will be making similar choices, each of which will be subjective and contestable. But because (optimistically) sophisticated websites created by respected organizations generate these results they will take on a special aura of credibility.
If we build decisions (the back end) on information based upon criteria that we don’t understand and with which we disagree then we run some risk of misleading ourselves.
There may be no answers to this except 1) as much transparency as possible about the criteria used in selecting and organizing the information and
2) frequent reminders that these variables exist (akin to the media reminders that survey results have a margin of error of +/- 3%).
3) diligence on the part of the user in understanding that the more important the decision the more crucial it will be that s/he understand how the supporting information was derived.
Thanks for provoking this very interesting and very enjoyable exchange.
Ah, yes. Very good point. I do think that transparency is especially critical in this process. This is NOT something that Google is know for. In fact, I’ve had a couple of readers tell me I’m doing a disservice by calling it Googlization. But so far no one has offered an alternative that is quite as “sticky”.
I completely get your column. We have taken this idea and made a site where philanthropy and volunteerism can all be found within one social network. The googlization of philanthropy is where we get most of our traffic and information from. At YourCause.com, we rely on third party nonprofit information hubs, like GuideStar.org and NetworkForGood.org to provide us with updated information on 501(c)(3) charities. EIN numbers are verified and as transparent as cellophane. This is the future of philanthropy! We help charities register with GuideStar because unless Guidestar approves them of being 501(c)(3) certified we can’t register them within YourCause.com. It’s a trail of partnerships but it’s changing… and it’s working!